SHOLA LYNCH KNOWS a good story when she sees it. Though she had always had her eyes set on being an archivist of black history and culture, her earlier path led her to work with legendary documentarian Ken Burns and to fall in love with filmmaking. She has since developed an impressive body of work.
She’s directed and produced two stellar documentaries: Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed, chronicling Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s historic presidential run in 1972 (for which Lynch won a Peabody Award); and Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, a Tribeca Film Festival award winner about the young, outspoken college professor Angela Davis and her fight to attain justice during a murder trial after she landed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Lynch’s work has been nominated in various categories by the Independent Spirit Awards, the Sundance Film Festival, and the London Film Festival. Lynch has also directed, written, and/or produced stories on topics as disparate as the wealth gap, music, and sports history for HBO, CNN, PBS, and ESPN.
Never content to rest on her laurels — the former college track star was keen to compare the trials of filmmaking with the road to becoming a champion athlete — Lynch is working on her first narrative feature while developing new documentary projects in addition to her work as curator of the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture — her “dream job.” It gives the New York native the opportunity to preserve and elevate the achievements and artistry of people of color. In this moment of political, artistic, and social upheaval, Lynch is a maker, a curator, and an observer.
In our interview, much as in all of her work, Lynch celebrates how far we’ve come, reminds us of the sobering truth that there’s far more work to do, and teaches us to find joy in the journey.
LEON HENDRIX III: I’m gonna throw you a softball to start: Is this the golden age of black cinema? Are we there yet?
SHOLA LYNCH: [Laughs.] My god, no! We’re never there. Black cinema ebbs and flows.
I think Black Panther is proving what many of us knew: there’s an audience for good stories with lead black characters, period. It really depends on how the business responds; whether there are opportunities beyond the individual. In other words: Ryan Coogler is set for life, but I don’t know if that means independent black voices who are coming up are gonna benefit in the same way.
But this is the opportunity to try. Take your script, take your idea, and see if you can get it out there. Why people and projects get greenlit is complicated. It’s about relationships, not just talent. The people at the forefront — Ryan and Ava — have those talents in abundance, right?
Yes. I think so. They’re all obviously very talented. But it’s like you said, there’s something else going on.
Precisely. They are connected. They build their teams, they take advantage of opportunities. And I don’t mean any of that in a negative way.
Okay, so what are we waiting for?
A diversity of directors and opinions related to black history and culture across the board. It’s still pretty narrow; within Hollywood, certainly.
Within the community of black creators, is it narrow?
No, it never really has been. We’ve always been there. We haven’t always been able to gain access to wider audiences or to distribution but the impulse has always been there. It’s up to us to go back and reclaim people that we may have overlooked, that we may not have seen, that didn’t have the opportunities that are available now.
To me that’s what the archives are about. I got into filmmaking because I wanted to be a curator at a historical institution. When I got out of graduate school, I couldn’t find a job to do that and I got a job with Ken Burns.
That’s a good parachute.
I worked for [Burns’s] Florentine Films as a researcher, then as an associate producer for nearly five films, and then I was like, “I love it. I want to make films.” I worked on Frank Lloyd Wright, about the architect, and the Jazz series. And, you know, you wrestle with the people you work for, and it gets to a point where it’s like, okay smarty pants … go out and make your own film.
It’s ironic that filmmaking brought me full circle to the job I wanted to have, being curator at the Schomburg. We have 5,000 square feet of materials. Most of it is not accessible. I get to come in and pull together the team to make it accessible.
We don’t know our story for ourselves. We’ve lost our sense of self in history. It was taken from us. There’s a certain violence in that. Since I can’t make films fast enough, I want to create a place, make the materials accessible so it becomes a platform for us.
How does your work as an archivist help us reclaim that identity?
Working on Jazz was really instructive. If you look at the history, there are people who start it, the older generation; then the young people say, “I want to do my own thing,” and that’s how you get bebop. You can’t be an amazing jazz musician without knowing all the people that came before you. You have to be in conversation with them.
Is that what you’re doing historically and artistically, as a filmmaker and an archivist for the people? Giving them their own jazz back?
You know I never quite thought of it that way, but it’s true. You know there’s so many of us that walk around thinking, “Oh my god, I’m the first person to think of this or do this” … It’s bullshit! We just don’t know about our foremothers and fathers. It’s up to us to create the historiography and our lineage, whatever our craft is. People always think exploration is about the future. So much of it for black folks across the diaspora is also about the past.
What is happening to us without that background?
A certain amount of anger comes out of it. It’s hard not to be angry. When somebody like Assata Shakur writes in her autobiography, “I didn’t know black people did anything or fought back…” If you don’t know that, you have a certain sense of shame or loss that is not the truth. It’s an undue burden.
It’s apparent in your work that the voices of black women in cinema are very important …
You’re laughing. I guess you’re thinking: Well, of course they are! But voice is something that gets thrown around in Hollywood a lot. Politically, socially, right now, is there a necessity for a distinct black female cinematic voice versus a black cinema in general that encompasses women?
Absolutely, unequivocally. It’s really important to be the lead character at some point. Listen Leon, I’m the lead character in my life. I’m not the buddy, I’m not the sidekick. So when I look to culture, I curate to reflect me. This is human nature. Cinema is super powerful. When you see these moving images reflecting back, it changes the culture.
When I made Chisholm ’72, people were like, “Who’s gonna watch it? Little old black lady runs for president.” She was considered an afterthought. That’s not how I saw her. She was one sentence in the bigger political story during the ’72 convention and election. But in that one sentence in that paragraph there was a whole story, you just have to shift the lens to see it.
One of the things I notice about your film work is that it’s rooted in the ’60s and ’70s — the most turbulent time in US history, and you’re dealing with black women in that era. But I think you approach your work with a lot of lightness and joy. Is that intentional?
I think that’s how we live. That’s how we survive. If I did something steeped in enslavement I’d see it the same way. Culture is a part of every circumstance. Think about prison. There’s culture. It’s how people cope and survive. It includes emotion. It ranges from, Aww! I’m in prison! to moments of levity and joy. To only show one part is to dehumanize the character. I particularly felt that in the case of both Chisholm and Angela. They each had tremendous senses of humor. To me, it’s not the same as lightness. I think that’s part of the goal. To take them off these historical pedestals and make them relatable.
Is it a revolutionary act to show these women in the height of turmoil still having a sense of humor … friends and family —
Yes. I do. I think it’s a revolutionary act for black people to see one another wholly. With the breadth of our individual humanity. We were stolen. We’re stolen people. American law and culture doesn’t see us as whole. It’s really easy in this culture to take that on and not really see each other.
I love true stories. I don’t need to make shit up. So many people, even Angela Davis and Shirley Chisholm, their stories are not believable, but they’re true.
They’re not probable, not likely.
Yeah. If I told you the details of Angela’s intellectual life, yeah, not probable. It’s not believable. We can’t sell that. I’m talking about the narrow cultural construction of who we are, which is not who we are. It’s not history. That’s propaganda.
With all the alt-facts out there, where does documentary sit in this space?
The story is about the story. How is it shared and distorted. That’s what this period is about. What I love about the ’60s and ’70s is that American culture was opening up in a way. It was grappling, earnestly and very openly, with ideas around race and gender. People were not media savvy. Nobody was being handled. Now, you don’t get candid media. Nobody was dressing Shirley Chisholm. Nobody was giving her sound bites.
It’s the paradox of our time: we’re the most recorded generation, but how much of that information can you trust?
It’s important to not always be concerned about what other people think. Isn’t that what social media is?
It is the constant acknowledgment that other people’s opinions are important.
Right. And I think it’s antithetical to art. Art is about going deep inside and finding something that’s true to you and manifesting it in some kind of cultural artifact. I don’t think it’s possible to do it by committee.
Is it like the Vonnegut story, “Harrison Bergeron”? If everything becomes equalized does it compromise our ability to go deeper?
It’s a matter of dimension. You can have diverse casting and dimensional characters. That’s the world I live in, and my art will reflect that. Even The Fast and the Furious reflects the maker’s world. And people are like, “Wow it sold overseas!” It wasn’t hard to cast that way because it was their point of view. It wasn’t a marketing tool.
Cultural depth used to be only represented through one people and one voice and one dimension. That’s what we as black people have been living through for a very long time.
So is the revolution being televised right now: #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein. Black Panther. We’re seeing a lot of thing breaking open …
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know nobody thought Black Panther would do as well as it did.
Well, Wesley Snipes did, ’cuz he always “bets on black.”
[Laughs.] Well, you bring up a good point. It’s not like there haven’t been black male leads in films before, but the POV of the films and filmmakers have not been so black or certainly not pan-African. They’ve always been star-driven. But nobody in Black Panther was a really a star, not like Wesley at the time, not like Denzel Washington, Will Smith.
We might be past the age of movie stars to some degree.
That’s an improvement. It gives more opportunity to craftspeople. It’s not just about celebrity. If this moment holds true and blossoms, we are gonna be in a really spectacular moment.
Somebody told me when Roots came out people were saying, “It will open all these other opportunities…” and it didn’t quite happen. This is a different moment, and it seems more possible. But I don’t know. If you look at black history and culture it’s filled with optimism. Otherwise, what are we doing?
You need the palliative to keep going through everything you go through in this country.
Right. W. E. B. Du Bois’s words ring true: “Two warring souls.” You see yourself in two different ways. You are cognizant how you are seen — in business, in the culture, the history — when you walk in for a job interview. You also have sense of yourself which is deeper, more nuanced; personal. Wouldn’t it be great if the way the outside saw me was closer to how I see me? That would be privilege.
How do you want to be seen? Through your work, what are you trying to tell us?
I’m trying to show you. Trying to ask you. Trying to engage you. Broadly it’s related to history. Broadly it’s related to black history. Specifically, black women and how we walk through the world. When I was in grade school we did plays. One was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s idea of inverting the main story to drive and shift the lens. I think about that all the time. That is what I do. You can’t tell me I wasn’t there — I was there! I just need to find me. Part of it is the curiosity and the process. To train yourself to look deeper at the picture.
What are you doing next?
I have several documentaries in the works. I’m doing one about Flo Jo for ESPN. First of all, she still holds world records. Second, she was, I believe, the first black woman to financially reap rewards from her [athletic] endeavors. Without her, you don’t have Venus and Serena.
What’s your dream doc?
For publication? Are you kidding me? No way! The way I figure it is this: I may not be the youngest person, but I’m gonna live to be 100, so I have decades of making ahead of me. My slate runs long and deep, baby.
Last movie you saw?
Last book you read?
What have I read for fun? Right now I’m reading Michele Faith Wallace (Dark Designs and Visual Culture). But even that’s work in a way.
That said, I most recently finished Donna Brazile’s Hacks. I’m currently reading on my phone, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. But I have to say the book that has had the most impact on me recently is Henry Giroux’s The Violence of Organized Forgetting. It is about organized forgetting. I can’t help of think of the concept related to blackness and black history. The willful omitting and minimizing of black accomplishment is a form of violence that is done to us, but that we also do to ourselves. To frame this as violence is pretty deep.
What’s on your playlist?
Oh, it’s crazy. I love the composers who created the soundtrack for The Revenant. I listen to their album. I’ve been listening to David Axelrod quite a bit. I just downloaded the Black Panther soundtrack and my throwback has been — I’ve been listening to this over and over again — Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul.
That’s such a Shola answer … Isaac Hayes. Who are your favorite filmmakers right now?
I don’t have a favorite. I’ve just been delighted by so many people. I have to say as a new-ish Academy member and getting the screeners I’m like a kid in a candy story. One of the things I really enjoy is that your vote actually matters. You can see the difference over the last few years. People vote for the films they think should win. I think about that in my own work. Free Angela came out before #OscarsSoWhite and nobody watched it! What’s cool about being inside is that you can open up the field. As Chisholm said, “Vote your conscience.”
What do you want from the next generation of black filmmakers?
Authenticity. Don’t try to sell me some stuff. Come with who you are.
Is that just something you know when you’re in the theater?
Absolutely. The point of view matters. If you’re just a black person propping up someone else’s point of view, I’m not that interested. It’s gotta be authentic to who you are. I may not like it, but if it’s authentic, I can respect it. I guess that’s what differentiates Disney and Black Panther in this moment with Ryan; they aren’t kind of black, or sort of African. There was space for authenticity in the storytelling. I think that’s what the world is responding to.
To the tune of $100 trillion …
Think about it: other than blaxpoitation films, and those are problematic, this is one of the only films within the American cultural film establishment where there is a breadth of black characters; not just the good guy — not Mr. Tibbs — not the bad guy, but both. And both of those characters are complicated. All the characters are complicated.
And that’s what we want …
Exactly. We want complicated characters — and it’s still fun.
So, I’m going off to make a film. How do I make it great?
This is the time for no half measures. It’s in the script. Just be true to it.